Wakanda Forever, But What About Africa Today?
A deep dive into some of the implications of 'Black Panther.'
The notion of a rich, technologically advanced African nation hiding behind an illusion of itself as a poor, technologically backward African country to the wider (read: white) world is a powerful lure for the imaginations of black folk, as well as a direct form of ideological criticism concerning how the West (again, read: white) tends to portray and maintain the Sub-Saharan continent of Africa in the minds of its populaces. From violent civil wars, famines, virulent and highly contagious diseases, warlords, despotic dictators and even the Nigerian scam phone calls (which has just been exposed as the plot of white con artists pretending to be Nigerian), Sub-Saharan Africa is deliberately misrepresented in the Western media and film as poor, technologically backward and violent.
Not to be neglected, North Africa (including the Middle East) is seen as a training ground for Islamic terrorism, unresponsive to women’s rights and has a duplicitous relationship with the West, while many of its countries profit from oil sales to the West. Thus, Africa in the popular Western mind is a bifurcated land of treachery, poverty, deceit, violence and strife. Some of the “shit-hole” nations to which Trump was referring to in a White House Oval Office meeting can be found within Africa, an Africa that, itself, is often misunderstood as a single nation-state as opposed to a continent of diverse nations, cultures and riches.
The release of Ryan Coogler’s Marvel superhero film, Black Panther, includes, as part of its story context, the existence of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is shown on the map that begins the film as being located exactly where the Democratic Republic of Congo would be in reality. The fictional nation of Wakanda in the film is cloaked behind a “mirage” of mountains and the deliberate stereotypical illusion of an impoverished African nation, when in reality, behind this cloak and illusion is a wealthy and technologically advanced African nation, far beyond any white Western nation, in part based upon the cultivation of an alien metal called vibranium, that fell to the Earth long ago from a meteor strike. While the hidden wealth and technology of the fictional Wakanda can be understood as a direct criticism of white Western countries' unmitigated exploitation of African wealth, labor, technology and minerals during colonial times, post-colonial times and our present times, the notion of an African nation hiding its wealth from the Western world gives this Marvel superhero film the potential to be a powerful political critique against white supremacy hidden behind an idealized vision of a fictional African nation. However, it is this potential for political criticism that is not without its faults.
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To better understand the potential political criticism within the story of Black Panther, we could go back to a particular political ideal that was expressed in a French article by Lucie-Mami Noor Nkaké about the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. The article discusses a long ago celebrated, and later discarded, idea of an ”Etats-Unis d’Afrique,” or, a “United States of Africa,” in direct opposition to the economic and cultural imperialism of the United States of America. The states in Africa being the nation-states found within the continent of Africa. Much like the European Union is today, the idea that sub-Saharan African countries could construct a unilateral federalist governmental body in unity to rectify the unequal and inequitable exploitation of African minerals, labor and materials by white Western countries is a powerful, albeit perhaps unattainable, ideal. This idea was being circulated among the newly independent African nations during the late 1950s and early '60s as many African nations thought that decolonization meant a new freedom from white oppression and political control. But alas, it was not to be. The answer to the question of why a “United States of Africa” cannot be realized is a direct consequence of the covert and overt tactics and strategies of political, economic, religious and ethnic destabilization created and maintained by white Western nations within Africa.
These are white Western nations who need the instability of Africa governments to continue to exploit the natural resources and labor found within these African nations. Whether we look at Belgium and its atrocities in the Congo, the United States’ tacit complicity in the assassination of the Congolese president, Patrice Lumumba, the political inaction and colonial legacies of The United States, The United Kingdom, Belgium and France in the Rwandian genocidal civil war in 1994, a major contributing factor to the civil wars, unstable governments, famines and strife in many African nations is white Western influence and deliberate political sabotage. To be clear, a United States of Africa would be a union that no white Western country or Asian superpower could tolerate politically, economically or ideologically. How else could these wealthy, First World nations continue to exploit the land, the labor and the materials of African countries if these countries were unified in such a way as to end the unjust enrichment of the West (and now the East) through the plundering of Africa?
In fact, according to a 2017 article titled, ”Africa Is Not Poor, We Are Stealing Its Wealth,” by Nick Dearden, over 203 billion dollars leaves the continent, ” … some of this is direct, like 68 billion in, mainly, dodged taxes. Essentially, multinational corporations steal much of this — legally — by pretending they are really generating their wealth in tax havens. These so-called illicit financial flows amount to around 6.1 percent of the continent’s entire gross domestic product (GDP), or three times what Africa receives in aid.” And while the deliberate exploitation of African nations by the West is widely known, as well as, U.S., Russian, Chinese and European direct and indirect involvement in the civil wars, famines, and strife within Africa- these circumstances are easily forgotten and politically neutralized by how sub-Saharan Africa is continually portrayed in the Western media and film that shapes the popular consciousness of the continent, ironically in our discussion here, as a single, impoverished and technologically backward Nation-State. This brief history lesson about the relationship of Africa to the West brings us to two points of interest regarding Coogler’s idealized fictional version of the African nation of Wakanda as a political critique, in comparison with the real horrific circumstances happening in the African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo that are known, but rarely acted upon by those nations who have a vested interest in keeping the Congo and other African countries destabilized.
First, as we turn our attention to Black Panther, it is of extreme interest that the actions of the Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), in the effort to share the secrets of Wakanda to aid as many black people throughout the African Diaspora as he can, are the very actions that bring a white, racial threat to the nation of Wakanda. Killmonger’s thirst for power is not for liberation, as argued by Adam Serwer in a recent piece in The Altantic, but instead, Killmonger’s goal is world domination. It's this vanity, couched in the rhetoric of black liberation, that allows us to see that Killmonger’s goal is ultimately misguided. His goal, if taken seriously, will expose Wankanda to the greed and avarice of the white Western world because there is no promise or certainty that those other blacks in the far away and disconnected diasporas actually want to be liberated, or are “woke” enough to use the tools given to make them free. They could also, in turn, sell them to the highest white bidder for temporary wealth and celebrity. In short, Killmonger’s misguided actions actually caused the destabilization of Wankanda and initiated what, for all intents and purposes, was a civil war in an African nation. It is in this way that Black Panther replicates how real African countries are destabilized by the foreign White influence and manipulation of black warmongers, who thirst for power instead of unity. In that thirst for power, and the confusion of civil and ethnic wars, the natural resources of an African country are exploited by white Western countries.
Black Panther could have been a powerful parable about the deliberate destabilization of African nations by whites, but the political insight of the film is blunted by the great emphasis it places upon the Killmonger character as a lone revenge-filled villain, and not the white interests that would have been behind his rise to power for the exploitation of an African country’s natural resources. We would do well to compare the Commandant character (played by Idris Elba) in Cary Joji Fukunaya’s film Beasts of No Nation to Black Panther's Erik Killmonger character for a more dramatically insightful, yet no less obscuring of white Western influence, representative of what is really happening in the real ‘Wakandas’ of Africa today.
One of the essential differences between Wakanda and a real African nation like the Democratic Republic of Congo, is that Wakanda has a stable system of government and its leaders have chosen to hide the country’s wealth and technology from whites, whereas in real life, African nations could not and cannot hide their natural resources from whites because of the greed, perfidy and deception of declining Western nations and their equally declining white leaders since the 15th century. Complicating what could have been a daring critique of American complicity in the manipulation of African governments and their leaders is the greater misguided decision to have a white C.I.A. officer, Everett K. Ross (played by Martin Freeman) aid in helping to save Wakanda and restore T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) to his rightful throne as King of the nation. The bitter irony here is that the C.I.A. was often one of the main American governmental organizations behind the destabilization of real African nations, including their attempts to kill the first Prime Minister of a newly independent Congo, Patrice Lumumba. To see this white character of the C.I.A. fighting to save and preserve the unity of a black nation (without losing his life in the process, as would have been done to a black character in the same position fighting for whites in a white film) is an all too obvious dramatic compromise to those whites who were financing this multi-million dollar film, and who wanted at least one “good” white token character in this majority black film.
The second point of interest is that although Wakanda retains its unity and its true king is restored by the end of the film, when we truly make a comparison between this fictional African nation and what is really happening today in a real African nation, the ending of the film, as well as the hashtag #WankandaForever, rings hollow, untruthful and even deliberately distracting. We must consider that “conflict mining,” which is the buying and selling of African resources that have been obtained through forced labor, child labor, rape and horrific violence in countries where the profits are used to fund civil wars, ethnic cleansing pogroms and other human rights abuses, is going on in the Congo right now. Conflict mining is deliberately aided and abetted by Western, and now Eastern, interests, and is hidden from our eyes. With this real knowledge of Africa, we should realize with great moral dismay how an idealized fictional African nation in a white superhero film franchise squandered the potential it could have had in exposing the countries and the political forces that are really behind the ongoing exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo, Libya, and other African nations.
Some may say that this is too much to ask of a Hollywood Superhero/comic book film. It’s just a movie, why can’t we just enjoy it? But it’s not just a movie: It is a 200 million dollar budget motion picture that has made over 500 million dollars and counting in box office receipts, that is part of a multi-billion dollar movie franchise, that was created by a multi-billion dollar white controlled transnational corporation called Disney. Therefore, it’s not, and never will be, about “Wakanda forever,” but instead, it’s about keeping black people in America, and around the world, distracted from clearly seeing who is behind what is really going on in Africa today.
To paraphrase the famous line that was shouted to distract the black audience just before Malcolm X was assassinated: “Git yo hand outta my pocket Mickey Mouse!”
For example, today in the Congo, the minerals that are being extracted from the ground by forced labor to fund the military arms purchases and the violence between warring factions of the Congolese are Coltan (used in everything from smartphones to laptops) and Cobalt (used in the development and production of high density, long range lithium-ion batteries for electric cars). According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, ”China is by far the biggest consumer of cobalt from the Congo, the world’s biggest producer. China refiners import about 94 percent of their cobalt from the West African nation, according to Darton Commodities.” In fact, we find that, in terms of cobalt extraction, refinement and distribution, that companies from nations such as China, the U.S., Switzerland, Canada and Britain are deeply invested and complicit in conflict mining and its horrific consequences.
The issue here is not the cobalt itself, but instead, the inhumane conditions surrounding its extraction, and the use of the profits from conflict mining to fund abusive military governments and civil wars within the Congo and other African nations. All of this blood and strife, in what is called the Third World, is for the benefit of high priced technological products used in the First World. In short, the deliberate destabilization of countries in Africa with its attendant injustice and violence enables and insures the technological comforts and advancements that we take for granted here in the U.S., in China and in Europe. Whereas many corporations, like Apple, claim to take extraordinary measures to insure that their products do not contain minerals extracted with forced or child labor, the incredible demand for, and high profits from, such minerals as coltan, cobalt and tin causes other neighboring African countries like Uganda and Rwanda to act as go-betweens by hiding the true source of minerals, according to the Enough Project. Furthermore, refinement and distribution points in Asia and Europe disguise conflict minerals in their production processes, rendering it extremely difficult to know from what mine a particular load of minerals have been extracted from. So while electronic technology in the so-called First World is making many of us “slaves” to it, there are modern day slaves, both children and adults, being physically forced to extract the minerals necessary for our mental enslavement to this technology.
In Black Panther, the valuable “alien” metal, vibranium, is what has allowed the fictional African nation of Wakanda to secure its wealth and technological advancements, but hide them from the wider white world, in isolation. Knowing what we have just discussed, concerning the conflict mining of cobalt and coltan under horrifically inhumane conditions in the real Democratic Republic of Congo, that is exploited by Western, and now Asian interests, we have to decide whether or not the idealized fictional African nation of Wakanda is a sufficient enough poetic device to critique the atrocities and exploitation, happening right now in African nations like the Congo, for the benefit of Western and now Asian countries. Or, is Black Panther and Wakanda just another “feel good” CGI created illusion that obscures what is going on in Africa for the purpose of gathering black dollars in tickets sales to support, what is ultimately, a white superhero franchise? Recall, that by the end of the film, everything that we have seen happening in Black Panther was really an elaborately constructed plot to protect a white man named, Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan). It could be that Black Panther itself is just a cleverly disguised tale of black servants fighting amongst each other as they protect a white male character from his enemies in the wider world. If this is a possible interpretation, then this Black Panther is really a white controlled puppet show being used to distract us from what is really going on — and making us pay for it, to boot.
As much as we should enjoy and celebrate the fact that we finally have a black superhero film that is successful here and abroad, we must not get so distracted in believing that there could be a "Wakanda forever," when in reality, the black audience might just be getting exploited for the benefit of white trans-national corporate profits. Does this sound familiar to anyone?